At first glance, it might appear Ron Howard is doing this movie director thing backward.
A typical career path is to make a couple of documentaries, parlay that into a chance to direct small feature films, use those as a steppingstone to big-budget projects, helm a blockbuster, impress the critics and then, with luck, win an Oscar or two.
That’s not the way Howard is going about it. He’s already made blockbusters (“The Da Vinci Code”) and megabudget tent-pole movies (“Solo: A Star Wars Story”). He’s earned the respect of critics as a serious filmmaker (“Apollo 13”) and won Oscars (best picture and director for “A Beautiful Mind”). Now he has turned his hand to documentaries, including “Pavarotti,” a portrait of an opera legend that opens in the Twin Cities Friday.
His interest in documentaries shouldn’t come as a surprise. Many of his most successful films have come from true stories, including “Cinderella Man” (boxer James Braddock), “A Beautiful Mind” (mathematician John Nash) and, of course, “Apollo 13” (the abortive 1970 moon mission).
“I love history,” Howard said by phone from his office in Los Angeles. “I always have. As a kid, I read books about Babe Ruth, Elgin Baylor and Sandy Koufax.”
Some filmmakers shy away from real-life stories, he said, “because they’re worried about being trapped by the facts. They’re worried that their ability to tell a compelling story will be limited by what really happened.
“But I’ve always found the opposite to be true. I find doing the research exciting.”
Even if “Pavarotti” is a runaway success by documentary standards, it will generate, at best, only 5% of the ticket sales of Howard’s $200 million-plus blockbusters. But he’s not in it for the money.
“I’ve always admired documentaries and documentary filmmakers,” he said “And I’ve always been fascinated by my peers who can go back and forth [between feature films and documentaries], people like Spike Lee [whose ‘4 Little Girls’ was nominated for an Oscar] and Martin Scorsese [whose 16 documentaries include the new Bob Dylan film ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ on Netflix]. I especially admire Jonathan Demme,” he said of the late “Silence of the Lambs” director whose 1984 concert film “Stop Making Sense” is widely considered a classic.
Howard conducted 50 interviews for his documentary on the late Luciano Pavarotti, juggling the film with other feature projects. He discovered that he liked the variety offered by changing focus.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “Once a week, I’d take a break from my scripted projects to work on this. It was a chance to explore myself and my connection to filmmaking.”
This is not his first music documentary, having made “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years” three years ago. Nonetheless, Howard insisted, he is not a big music buff and even less of an opera fan.
What intrigues him, he said, “are high achievers who set the bar so high, it’s in a place you’d think they could never reach but aren’t intimidated by the challenge of trying to lift themselves up to that standard.”
Pavarotti, the iconic tenor who died in 2007, fit that mold perfectly. A grade-school teacher who landed a role in an opera as a prize for winning a talent contest, he was never content to rest on his laurels. Even after becoming an established star, he took pride in learning from his fellow performers. Eventually becoming the world’s most famous tenor, he launched a series of concerts, “Pavarotti & Friends,” in which he performed with rock stars, among them Bono, Stevie Wonder and the Spice Girls. He was the first — and still only — opera star to sing on “Saturday Night Live.”
Opera snobs were appalled, but he didn’t care what other people thought. His confidence in himself never waned.
“He was a huge presence, both physically and in terms of his charisma,” Howard said. “When Pavarotti showed up, he was the man.”
Howard met the singer only once, and that just was in passing.
“It was at some Hollywood event, and we just shook hands, one of those ‘Hello, nice to meet you’ kind of things,” he said. But it was enough of an encounter for Howard to come away impressed with how genuine Pavarotti seemed — an interesting observation by someone who is himself considered one of the most down-to-earth people in Hollywood.
“He truly cared about people,” Howard said, and despite the singer’s larger-than-life fame (figurative) and size (literal), he exuded humility in person. The documentary drives that point home in an interview with Bono, who says he was awed by “the power of his modesty.”
Howard is working on another fact-based project, an adaptation of the bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” And while he doesn’t have another documentary project on his calendar, it doesn’t mean that he considers them just a diversion to fill time between other projects.
“I have a lot of respect for the medium,” he said. “This is a wonderful opportunity we have, and it should be respected and revered.”